Preston too hasty to sack Irvine
I almost crashed the car when I heard on the radio that Preston had sacked manager Alan Irvine.
Striker Neil Mellor said of the news: "I'm in a state of shock, as are all of the players that I have spoken to. It comes as a major surprise and I think we're all disappointed."
Preston's local newspaper, the Lancashire Evening Post, reported that their North End correspondent spent 30 minutes talking on the phone to Irvine on Tuesday morning without detecting the slightest hint of what was to follow.
The sacking just seems so out of kilter for a club that has become a watchword for common sense; one that has managed to consistently punch above its weight in the Championship season after season precisely because it has avoided the sort of rash short-term decision-making that has undermined so many other clubs.
Irvine's Preston are eight points away from a play-off place
I have always had a lot of respect for chairman Derek Shaw, who has run a tight ship at Deepdale. He is often criticised by supporters for lacking the ambition to take the club into the Premier League and of failing to invest in the playing squad the amount necessary to end what will soon be a 50-year absence from top-flight football.
Yet he has a decent track record of appointing managers - David Moyes, Craig Brown, Billy Davies, Paul Simpson and Irvine all impressing to lesser or greater extents - and has tried to balance the delicate relationship between the bottom line and the need to spend increasingly untenable figures on new signings.
I think the dismissal of Irvine is a different case - and I'd like to think that there must be more to it than meets the eye because otherwise it must surely be viewed as uncharacteristically rash.
Yet Shaw has cited the recent run of form, with just one win from North End's last 10 Championship fixtures as the reason behind the decision, which was reached at a board meeting on Tuesday.
There is no doubt that Preston's form has dipped alarmingly, with the team slipping from the thick of the play-off positions to 16th in the table, now as close to the drop as they are to the big time.
I was at their 3-0 defeat at Nottingham Forest on 19 December and it was a remarkably one-sided affair, with the points secure for the high-flying home side - now managed by Davies - before the icy temperatures had time to numb the ends of my fingers.
But pointing to recent form does not wash with me. A scan at the team's recent results makes me think of a comment Irvine made when I interviewed him on the eve of his first anniversary in charge in November 2008.
The Scot, who had been assistant to Moyes at Everton prior to his move to Deepdale, told me that the margins separating success and failure in the Championship were so fine that his team could have lost virtually every game they had won that season and vice- versa.
Now take a look at Preston's recent run of form. OK, it has been poor in terms of points gained (seven from the last 30) and goals scored (six in the last 10 games) - but in that period there have only been three games in which the there has been more than one goal between North End and their opponents. And one of those was North End's 2-0 victory over Plymouth.
Irvine's team have not been taking a hiding week-in, week-out.The margins are fine and his side have been on the wrong side of them - but sufficient reason to sack him? I don't think so.
"He was massively popular," added Mellor. "He had the respect of the whole dressing- room and we were working hard for him to get the results we could for him.
"It's a tough division but a couple of wins would shoot us back up the table."
North End have hit a dip in form and confidence has suffered but, crucially, Irvine was being expected to keep Preston in contention for a play-off spot with a reduced squad.
He lost long-serving midfielder Paul McKenna in the summer and key defender Sean St Ledger shortly after the season started, although the defender is now back at Deepdale after his loan move to Boro expired. Ally the loss of St Ledger to the injury suffered by Youl Mawene in late November and the heart had been ripped out of the centre of Preston's defence.
Irvine paid £400,000 for Ipswich midfielder Velice Shumulikoski in the summer and also brought Cardiff winger Paul Parry to the club - and it could be argued that neither has made a significant impact.
Yet there is no doubt that North End are essentially a selling club and Irvine did not have the funds available to mount the sort of ambitious spending spree that, for example, Davies undertook at Forest.
Mellor (r) was surprised by Irvine's sacking
Irvine brought in Ross Wallace on loan last season and eventually managed to sign permanently the Scottish winger, who is one of the very few truly inspirational players at Deepdale. The recent loan signing of Michael Tonge has been a success and yet North End cannot pay the wages to make his deal permanent.
I have heard it said that Irvine got it wrong far too often with his selection but he is a manager who was thorough in his preparation - he knew he had to be to compensate for North End's financial shortcomings.
Irvine has always come across as a sensible, knowledgeable and dignified man who worked extremely hard. A lot of what he said made sense and he had enough experience in football to neither become carried away by success nor overly perturbed by defeat.
It took him a long time after he took over from Simpson in November 2007 to change the momentum at Deepdale as the team lost seven of his first 10 games in charge and slumped to the bottom of the table.
But he eventually kept the team in the division and reached the play-offs last season before losing to Sheffield United over two legs in the semi-finals.
His assured management brought West Brom calling during the summer and saw him linked with Middlesbrough after Gareth Southgate was dismissed.
Irvine turned down the Baggies but might be regretting his decision now and I cannot help but think that someone so highly rated just a few months ago has not suddenly become a bad manager.
It would be wrong to point the finger squarely at Irvine for the problems at Preston.
The redevelopment of Deepdale is now complete but the ground is often half full, with attendances often between 12,000-13,000. There is a sparse, slightly hollow feel to home fixtures, far removed from the tight atmosphere of the old Town End.
The club operates at a loss and recent annual reports are testimony to the generosity of ultra-wealthy supporter Trevor Hemmings through his company Guild Ventures Limited in ensuring PNE remains on an even keel.
Set against this are the expectations of a supporter base that has been treated regularly through the Noughties to Championship play-off campaigns, all of which have ended in failure.
No club has been in the second tier longer and a largely successful decade has inflated the notion of what represents success to the extent that it has outstripped the obvious financial reality.
Shaw now has the task of appointing a new manager and I would not be surprised if he once again makes a shrewd decision.
In many respects North End remains an attractive proposition for an ambitious young manager, with Darren Ferguson one name already mentioned.
But is replacing Irvine as manager really the answer to the club's problems?